Our planet has take another spin around its star. Happy New Year! That means we’re also at the tail end of Year End Music mode. It’s that time to take stock and remember, “Oh year, The Decemberists record came out in January 2015! Wow!” This will matter soon enough.
For me, 2015 was a year of both expansion and isolation. Addressing the expansion: I was introduced to many new and fascinating sounds. I’m not sure Holly Herndon should count as music, but then what would you call it? I heard more electronic, rap, and country music than I had in the past.
On the flip side, I reacted to some of the world by pulling inward. I kept coming back to comfortable indie rock. Spoon was never far away, and Japandroids kept me thinking positive. 2015 was the year that opened me to Belle and Sebastian, and If You’re Feeling Sinister in particular. It’s 19 years old at this point, and maybe the best thing I heard for the first time in 2015.
Today, I choose to start remembering the sorta-best music of 2015. But instead of outright saying “best,” I’ve decided to go with “my favorite.” I can’t take ownership of the entire culture, and Lord knows I haven’t heard everything out there. This year, it’s the music I loved most. These lists were always that way, only now the distinction is formalized.
There’s a Spotify Playlist at the end if you’d rather listen that way. Your choice!
(Some arbitrary, self-imposed rules: only one song per artist, and if songs are part of a proper album, the release date must be in 2015. That means we can use Sleater-Kinney now! Hooray!)
25 “Hello” by Adele
Why I like It: I like the hyper-emotion, that the song is unapologetic about vocals. This is 100% Adele singing, and I imagine it would be just as great without backing music (it’s way back in the mix anyway). Also, I am a living, breathing human. Adele’s voice cuts me like butter.
Why You Might Like It: Do you enjoy singing? Do you enjoy getting swept up in an epic swirl? Are you a person with ears? Ask your doctor if Adele is right for you.
24 “Summertime” by Vince Staples
Why I Like It: I like that it sounds tense at the beginning. I like that Staples sounds sincere about his uncertainty and his future. “This could be forever, baby” repeats often, and I like the second word in there. Could. I like the implied choice. I also like the melody.
Why You Might Like It: You enjoy slow jam rap. You like the sunshine or the snow. You like honesty.
23 “Where the Sky Hangs” by Passion Pit
Why I Like It: “Sky Hangs” sounds, to me, like an expression of gooey sweet love, especially with those twinkling bells in the refrain. I like how the bass gushes at me from the outset and dances around through the rest of the song. I like falsetto from Michael Angelakos. I like that the track builds over time, and also that it never grows too big to be silly.
Why You Might Like It: You are cool with slight electronic sounds. You like saccharine singing. You get caught up in the melody.
22 “We Can Do What We Want” by Drenge
Why I Like It: I enjoy the propulsive power of this song. The lyrics match that driving forward aspect, the titular phrase showing up throughout. I like the noisy guitars and the vocals that get angry without getting screamy. I also like the throwaway vulgarity right near the end, the most restrained exclamation of “f***” I think I’ve heard. Plus it’s less than three minutes!
Why You Might Like It: You enjoy quick power punk type of music. You enjoy expressions of freedom.
21 “Nobody’s Empire” by Belle & Sebastian
Why I Like It: I like Stuart Murdoch’s voice. It hits a good place between comforting, engaging, and outright pretty. I am a sucker for ringing guitars (see: R.E.M., The Shins), and Stevie Jackson is a master on this song. I also enjoy good vocal harmonies, and the band pulls those off nicely here.
Why You Might Like It: You like storytelling and honesty. You look for Scottish accents. You wanted If You’re Feeling Sinister to have a slightly bigger sound.
20 “XT” by u-Ziq
Why I Like It: I think “XT” sounds like pop music from Earth was shipped to another planet and made to fit extraterrestrial tastes. I don’t have much interaction with ambient music, so I realize I’m coming at the song from a strange angle. I’m still fascinated by the piano intro/outro and the funky guitar bits in the middle. And somehow, that’s enough to like it.
Why You Might Like It: You are an alien. You were already excited by electronic/ambient sounds. You like funky guitars in unexpected places.
19 “Sister of Pearl” by Baio
Why I Like It: I can’t get the harpsichord melody out of my head, and I mean that in a good way. I also like Chris Baio’s voice. Did you know he’s from Vampire Weekend? I didn’t at first, and I like that as a surprise. I like the quiet part around the refrain and the high energy everywhere else.
Why You Might Like It: You enjoy pianos. You can get behind a good male voice. You like hipster stuff but not all the pretension.
18 “Wild One” by Colleen Green
Why I Like It: I like echoing guitars. I like Green’s voice. I like that the lyrics aren’t outright sad. Green’s letting go of a crazy guy, but that doesn’t seem to phase her too much. I do wish there was more shown about just why he’s a “wild one,” but then I get caught by that catchy melody again. And I like that most of all.
Why You Might Like It: You enjoy pop rock. You enjoy when guitars have echo and distortion. You work with animals.
17 “Make You Better” by The Decemberists
Why I Like It: I’ll listen to anything Colin Meloy does. His cadence, his timbre, his wordy messages make me happy (I love the alliterative “perfect paramore”). “Make You Better” ups the ante with that opening guitar phrase, which sets the whole whole thing in motion like a high-stakes drama in my mind. And then the bridge fires up, and it sends the song right into the atmosphere. It’s a very Decemberists song, and that is more than enough for me.
Why You Might Like It: You enjoy Neutral Milk Hotel. You have swayed to “The Mariner’s Revenge Song.” You are bookish (or enjoy the perception of bookishness) and wanted guitars to go along with your lifestyle.
16 “Loud Places (feat. Romy)” by Jamie xx
Why I Like It: I like the message. I tend toward introversion, so the core of Romy’s lyrics sound great to me. “I go to loud places to search for someone to be quiet with.” I also like the color of regret and heartbreak throughout (“I’m here, all alone”). I also love the song’s ringing guitar, as if this is a spiritual successor to “Islands.”
Why You Might Like It: You enjoy sing-along choruses. You are physically unable to resist handclaps. You love Romy’s voice.
15 “Horseshoe Crabs” by Hop Along
Why I Like It: I like the way the singer’s voice cracks, strains, and warps around the high notes and the loud parts. In the wrong place, that could come across as unforgivable amateurism. Here, I like that it fits the punk sincerity. I also like how loud the loud parts get.
Why You Might Like It: You are a punk. You appreciate emotion. You get excited by a good loud part in a song.
14 “Thunk” by Diamond Rugs
Why I Like It: I LIKE THE HORNS. The horns also yell at me that way. And that’s right up my ska-loving alley. I like the singing, I like the way the band coos out the phrase “by the way.” I like the pianos. I like the driving drums. I also enjoy how “Thunk” sounds timeless.
Why You Might Like It: You have been a sax, trombone, or trumpet player. You enjoy the suggestion of Springsteen but not everything the Boss has done. You like the best song of 2014.
13 “Sprinter” by Torres
Why I Like It: I like that this sounds like the 90s. If you put the opening guitar bits on a Garbage, Smashing Pumpkins, or PJ Harvey album, it’d be right at home. And that’s a good thing. I also like Torres’ singing, going between beautiful quietude and aggressive intonation that matches the guitars. I also like the vocal distortion stuff. It adds enjoyable contrast.
Why You Might Like It: You played a lot of To Bring You My Love, or Garbage, or Siamese Dream, or The Bends. You enjoy Torres’ voice.
12 “Hell” by The Pains of Being Pure at Heart
Why I Like It: I could listen to that guitar all day. Yes, it’s the INXS “Need You Tonight” guitar cranked closer to the pop side of the spectrum. And, wouldn’t you know, that’s another guitar I’d love to hear all the time! There’s more here that I like (the sweet singing, the sweeping string/synth when the guitar is quiet), but really: the guitar is enough.
Why You Might Like It: You like the guitar in “Need You Tonight.”
11 “S.O.B.” by Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats
Why I Like It: I love the chorus. It seems like a gimmick, and ends up hitting a homerun in my ears every time. “Sonovabitch!” I’d like to think it’s intended as silly nonsense, because I smile and laugh when Rateliff conjures his fury from nothing. I treat the rest of the song like rest time, to build and anticipate. Because, somehow, I’ve come to like “S.O.B.” even more now that I know what to expect.
Why You Might Like It: You like shouting along to the chorus. You can relate to random exclamation. You don’t find it to be a gimmick.
10 “Molly” by Palehound
Why I Like It: I like the guitar heroics. I like St. Vincent, and this sounds like Annie Clark’s sibling (or cousin). I like the tempo and the drums. I like the voice (again, hints of St. Vincent). I love the Led Zeppelin breakdown toward the back half. And I hate that it ends so soon, but I love hitting repeat.
Why You Might Like It: You have been a Digital Witness, are currently an Actor Out of Work, or have ever been caught rocking out to “Communication Breakdown.”
09 “Hotline Bling” by Drake
Why I Like It: I like that there’s no real musical melody. I like the weird ticky sound that drives the song. I like Drake’s voice. I also like that none of these reasons seem very convincing (and that I’ve never like a Drake song before). Aubrey Graham is a goddamn warlock in “Hotline Bling” and I could not escape his powers.
Why You Might Like It: You have dialed a phone. You need Drake’s love. You currently have one or more working ears. You laugh at memes.
08 “I’m the Man to Be” by El Vy
Why I Like It: It’s the National. I mean, it isn’t. But it is. I like Matt Berninger’s voice. I also like his dry humor and non sequiturs. Guess what? El Vy hits all the high points! Yes, “I’m the Man to Be” is missing the drums-first attitude from Alligator. That’s okay. I like the barebones funk anyway. I also like the odd studio talk stuff. It’s all on the edge of falling apart and Berninger carries the way. You might not like him without the existential dread. Somehow it works for me.
Why You Might Like It: You own a green shirt. You are peaceful in sunlight. You are okay with The National’s voice branching out with different friends.
07 “Clearest Blue” by Chvrches
Why I Like It: I like Lauren Mayberry’s voice. I like the infectious melody. I have succumbed to electronic music after all, and this is very pleasing. But let’s be serious. Above all else, for me, this song is about the damn drop. Oh boy. You need the whole song for the effect to work. When the song explodes, it hinges on a half-question, half-demand. Mayberry belts out the key line, “Will you meet me more than halfway up?” 2:11 is a fantastic release, gets me with the whole tingles down the back thing. I can only imagine this thing is a delight in person.
Why You Might Like It: You love New Order’s “Blue Monday.” You want to feel a mix of sadness, delight, anticipation, and relief at the same time.
06 “Dreams” by Beck
Why I Like It: I like fun Beck, and this is a step beyond just “fun.” This is dancing funky Beck, and I didn’t know this would be my favorite version of his mutations. I like that opening guitar line. I like the brief lull before the titular refrain fires off. I like that “Dreams” is long enough to breathe, and I enjoy the cool mid-song breakdown. I like that Beck is unafraid of repetition, and drives home the good parts.
Why You Might Like It: You have one time (or more than once) felt a beat in your bones. You enjoy dancing. You dig guitars.
05 “REALiTi (Demo)” by Grimes
Why I Like It: I like that Grimes’ voice is clearer than usual, brought forward in the mix. I like that the message isn’t clear. “Every morning there are mountains to climb.” Sometimes I hear this as fighting through challenges. Other times, I think it’s more an excitement to explore the realities of life. I also love the music, the most accessible Grimes’ sound has been on my ears. Also, I like the Demo version of “REALiTi,” not the album version. Choose wisely.
Why You Might Like It: You didn’t hate “Oblivion,” but wanted better music to go with the ethereal singing. You are curious about electronic music. You already loved Grimes. You were previously skeptical about Grimes.
04 “Pedestrian at Best” by Courtney Barnett
Why I Like It: I like that this is a playful headbanger, good for listening in all kinds of moods. I dig distorted guitars, and I like Barnett’s speak-sing voice. And just like everyone else who enjoys “Pedestrian,” I get a kick out of the lyrics. It reads like a response to the internet hype machine, and I enjoy both the sincerity (or observed sincerity) and the playful wordiness. The whole refrain is fun, hitting the feedback while also offering a silly put-down (“I think you’re a joke, but I don’t find you very funny”).
Why You Might Like It: You enjoyed 90s guitar stuff (like Nirvana). You savor words and wit. You revel in self-aware reaction tracks.
03 “The Ground Walks, with Time in a Box” by Modest Mouse
Why I Like It: I’m a sucker for all the tricks up the Modest Mouse sleeve. In “Ground Walks,” they all come flying at once: skittering guitars, Isaac Brock toeing the line between pretty voice and snarl, crazed poet lyrics, fun propulsive drums. This sounds like what my brain would produce if asked to imagine “Modest Mouse songs.” And maybe for you, that’s not enough progress in the eight years since last proper album release. For me, it’s comfortable without being a retread. And I’m perfectly fine with loving the familiar if executed this well.
Why You Might Like It: You are or were a Modest Mouse fan. You like Isaac Brock’s voice. You can get along with general “indie rock.”
02 “Bury Our Friends” by Sleater-Kinney
Why I Like It: I like rock & roll music. The opening guitar bit speaks to my brain and tells it wonderful things in a language only my subconscious understands. I love the drums, how they impart different feelings in each phase of the song. I like that I can lock in on the focused rhythm of the chorus. I love the singing, the passionate delivery of the verses. And most of all, I love the symmetry of the song. The whole thing finishes by bringing the opening guitar figure back around with a punch. I’m sure it’s done on purpose, and it’s wonderful every damn time.
Why You Might Like It: You like rock & roll. You have ever wanted to play guitar or appreciate great licks. You enjoy things that are good.
01 “The Only Thing” by Sufjan Stevens
Why I Like It: “The Only Thing” is so, so beautiful to me. The guitars aren’t showy, they’re more akin to quiet holiday carol or a religious hymn. And Stevens’ voice is another thing I like, carrying the melody and adding to the wonderful sound.
“The Only Thing” is also so, so sad. I’m not sure I’m supposed to “enjoy” sorrow, so it’s a complicated relationship. Lyrically, it’s a song about reaction to deep personal pain. Stevens is on the brink of suicide, and he provides starkly specific thoughts (“The only thing that keeps me from cutting my arm / Cross hatch, warm bath, Holiday Inn after dark.”). But he also gives the reason why he hasn’t ended life, “signs and wonders.” Nature, God. I feel sympathy toward Stevens, his delivery sounds like a man on the brink.
The meeting point of beauty and heartache happens at the flourish. At 2:37, sounds come rushing in, the higher-register steel or slide guitars. Built with the knowledge of the prior songs on Carrie & Lowell, with opening of “The Only Thing” fresh in mind, it’s the most emotional moment in music for me in 2015.
So “The Only Thing” is my favorite song of the year. But it’s a complex favorite. I’ll probably listen to Sleater-Kinney or Modest Mouse more often, they’re both fun and upbeat. “The Only Thing” is depressing and peerless.
Why You Might Like It: You enjoy folk. You are okay with a good cry. You have liked Sufjan Stevens in the past. You don’t mind a bit of depression mixed in with your shimmering beauty.